Innovation for Conservation

How tech can help us protect species and the environment

The potential for technology to improve human lives is vast — these days it feels like every startup is a social enterprise. Yet sometimes it feels like the fate of the environment and non-human lives remains an afterthought, despite the fact that they are integral to human wellbeing — not to mention valuable in their own right.

So I decided to dig around for some inspiring projects and initiatives that are applying exciting emerging tech — AR, AI, big data, drones — to conservation. It turns out there’s plenty of places to draw inspiration from innovation.

Save The Elephants x Vulcan

Tracking devices have long been used to keep tabs on animals, but until recently, they’ve only been as effective as their human watchers can be vigilant. And when you’ve got hundreds of wild animals roaming thousands of square kilometres, keeping them safe — away from poachers and other perils — is no mean feat. This year, Kenya-based conservation NGO, Save The Elephants (STE), developed algorithms to use with state-of-the-art collars that automatically detect when an animals slows down, stops moving, or is heading towards danger. As this is done in real time, preemptive action can be taken and lives saved.

Most of the tech used in the system is standard smartphone stuff.

Processing the data presented a challenge for the STE team. Enter Vulcan Inc. — Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s multifaceted organisation — which developed open-source tracking software called the Domain Awareness System (DAS). The system can smoothly manage the data while pulling in swathes of external information such as location of rangers, camera feeds, and even the sound of gunshots. It then sends alerts when a potential problem is detected.

What’s most interesting about this story is that, as Scientific American points out, most of the tech used in the system is standard smartphone stuff. That it’s only now being consolidated and applied to conservation is confounding. But it does also mean there’s still so much potential for innovation in this arena.

The rise of social media has proved the power of the Internet to connect people — now it’s time to do move beyond our own species.

The Internet of Elephants

It’s no secret that stories and experiences help humans form meaningful emotional connections. Often, it’s that deeper sense of engagement that inspires action or a chance in behaviour. The Internet of Elephants uses this idea as its starting point, developing immersive games that create stronger connections between people and individual animals. The rise of social media has proved the power of the Internet to connect people — now it’s time to do move beyond our own species.

The company uses real-world research data gathered as part of partnerships with conservation NGOs. This is then fed into an augmented reality game called Safari Central, which lets users engage with the lives of individual animals. According to the Internet of Elephants’ manifesto: “We see this data as an untapped asset and an opportunity to keep people more engaged with these same animals, to create a vested interest in their lives, and in the process generate publicity and revenues for the conservation organisations conducting the research.”

“This system will peel back the layer of night to assist the brave rangers protect wildlife and help keep them safe.”

Anti-poaching systems

Poaching continues to threaten species with outright extinction. Advanced cameras and drones are increasingly being deployed to detect human activity and keen animals safe. The WWF, for example, recently used a Google grant to develop a thermal imaging camera and software system. Thermal cameras detect the presence of living creatures, and the software analyses the image to determine whether it’s a human.

“We know this will be a groundbreaking solution to stop poaching and keep rhinos and other wildlife safe,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s director of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project, of the system. “This system will peel back the layer of night to assist the brave rangers protect wildlife and help keep them safe.”

Similarly, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) developed a camera trap system that uses satellite technology to send images in real-time from almost anywhere in the world. Called Instant Detect, it also uses seismic and magnetic sensors specifically designed to detect poaching activity.

The next generation of drones, too, is being used to tackle the problem from above. NGOs and governments are still figuring out how to use the technology effectively within wider anti-poaching infrastructure. Plus, drones were initially banned because they were being used by poachers to locate animals, and this legislative restriction has halted progress until very recently.

All three of these innovations are now being deployed by authorities such as the Kenya Wildlife Service, with the aim of significantly reducing the number of deaths by poaching. Ironically, however, the job of protecting wildlife is growing ever more dangerous, with reports of deadly violence against rangers on the rise.

They’ve created the world’s first real-time deforestation detection system

Rainforest Connection

The Rainforest Connection “makes trees talk” by upcycling discarded mobile phones and using AI to convert them into solar-powered listening devices that can pick up chainsaw sounds from many miles away. Effectively what they’ve created is the world’s first real-time deforestation detection system — and what’s more, the data gathered is open to anyone in the world. Again, this means protectors can intercept loggers before too much damage is done. At the same time, the system puts to use swathes of hardware that would otherwise add to our growing pile of global e-waste.

Having confirmed proof of concept in Sumatra, the initiative is looking to expand to rainforest in Indonesia, the Amazon and Cameroon.

Whether it’s an eavesdropping phone, a stealthy quadcopter or a hi-tech camera, technology can go a long way in supporting the ongoing efforts of conservationists. But it’s clearly only part of the solution. In many ways, the technical aspects are the easiest to deal with — it’s the complex web of humanity that continues to pose the greatest peril to our world.